Showing posts from January, 2013

Masani Epilogue

For Macaulay, an English education for India’s ruling elites had been only the first step in a far wider diffusion of modern learning to the largely illiterate mass of the subcontinent’s population. He had correctly predicted that the English language would be the key to success in a globalized knowledge economy. And he would almost certainly have lamented the fact that, almost two centuries later, Indian English, like medieval Latin in Europe, remains the preserve of the better of 10 per cent of the population who can afford to pay for it. He would probably have blamed the Indian state for its failure to provide free and equal access to English, in much the same way as he castigated the Orientalists of his own day for their backward-looking revivalism. Masani, Zareer (2012-11-16). Macaulay: Pioneer of India’s Modernization (Kindle Locations 3654-3660). Random House India. Kindle Edition.

Macaulay vs. the Orientalists

Who were the "Orientalists" that Macaulay opposed, and what did they want? Well, mostly they were James Mill and his son John Stuart Mill, the noted philosopher. Here is Masani: ...And yet, the difference between their two positions was not so wide. Both agreed that government should promote some English teaching; the question was how quickly and extensively. Mill wanted efforts to be concentrated on a small elite of Indians who were already scholars of Oriental Studies and through whom knowledge would trickle down to the vernacular-speaking masses. Macaulay, on the other hand, wanted to use English as the medium for giving as many Indians as possible a Western education, responding to the aspirations of a rapidly expanding middle class and eventually of the entire population. Though not explicitly stated in his Minute, his ultimate goal was of an Indian empire whose citizens, like those of Rome, would become equal partners of their British mentors, with English, like Lati…

British Governance in 1835 India

The British East India Company (EIC) began as traders, became free-booting mercenaries, and finally conquerors. Their ambition was to suck as much money as possible out of the territory. The company's bad behavior, and in particular it's role in exacerbating the catastrophic famine of 1770 attracted a lot of negative press in Britain. Mostly as a consequence, parliament took some tentative steps to reining in it's reckless rapacity. In particular, it set up a government "Board of Control" to oversee the EIC in India and required that the Company set aside some funds for "improving" the lives of Indians, including 100,000/yr rupees for educational work. These were the funds that were potentially available to the governor and his board, including Macaulay. It's worth noting that in England at the time, the government funds allocated for education were zero - it was a purely private enterprise. The powers of the board of control in Indian civil…

Crunch Time

If our ancestors of some time ago had been a bit more forward thinking and had set up suitable time-lapse photography, we could have had a nice record of a spectacular event. I'm talking about the collision of India with the Eurasian land mass, of course. 300,000 years worth should have been enough to capture the land mass looming out of the distance, the seabeds buckling upward, and the wild explosion of earthquake and volcanic activity. I suppose we can't really blame them much though, since they were all squirrel sized pro-simian insectivores with little knowledge of digital photography or long term archival storage.

Imperial Apex

By Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, the British Empire sprawled over five continents and hundreds of islands. It was by far the largest empire that had ever existed. The war of revenge against the dervishes - Salafis in the Sudan - culminated in the slaughter of Omdurman. Machine guns and artillery beat spears and muskets. But signs of rot were already showing up. The turn of the twentieth century war against the Boers in South Africa was brutal, difficult, and was conducted ultimately with a policy of burning farms and imprisoning women and children in concentration camps, where poor food and sanitation killed tens of thousands. Of course this was a small scale slaughter compared to some previous colonial wars, but this time the victims, or many of them, were white Europeans. The peace would be a technical victory but mostly a loss. Disgust with the conduct of the war combined with the well-founded suspicion that it had been fought for the benefit of a tiny number of rich…

More on the Fat Kid

As a reward for his critical work on electoral reform in England and in the anti-slavery cause, Macaulay was appointed to the board of control of the East India Company - a government appointed board tasked with oversight of the East India Company, which had lost some of it's autonomy after various outrages past. While there, he became interested in the work of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, who was then in London, and who had equally radical ideas on such then extreme ideals as the rights of man, racial equality, and women's rights, as well as his own radical take on religion. Roy died in London before Macaulay went to India, but many of Macaulay's policies, notions, and speeches appear to derive, at least in part, from Roy. According to Masani

Immigration Racket

One provision of the proposed immigration reform package looks like an invitation to a racket - the proposal for automatic green cards for anyone earning a MS or PhD in a STEM field. How do you keep this from producing a raft of diploma mills in the US - and we already have plenty. Also, why should degree holders from top foreign schools be excluded? Maybe some exam standards would be better - it would also put pressure on US schools to pay attention to what their grads are learning.

Control of Mobile Robots

That's my latest Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) from Coursera. So far it seems pretty good, but I have to say that Coursera does not seem as pedagogically advanced as Udacity and Duolingo. Essentially the course seems to consist of talking head lectures, in bite sized bits, with a quiz at the end. The quiz tested my dim remembrance of differential equations more than my recall of the lectures. Udacity and Duolingo are much better at giving you immediate interaction and feedback. My opinion is that a good MOOC needs to be more than talking head lectures and tests with quick feedback. Other key elements are interactivity and gamification. Duolingo appears to have traveled furthest down that road, but Udacity is good too. Of course nice graphics, preferably interactive, would also be cool - but my video game designer tells me that would be very expensive. The C of Mobile robots course also has optional MATLAB simulations, but you need to buy a copy of software - only $100 f…

A Short Fat Kid

He was a short and chubby youth with no athletic talent, a dedication to reading, and insufferably precocious – traits as certain to attract bullying in English public schools 200 years ago as today. He read, spoke and thought like an adult from the earliest ages. Naturally, school was utterly miserable for him. His mother was raised a quaker and his father was a strict and unsmiling evangelical. University was a new world. There he quickly attracted a crowd of intellectually minded admirers and became a debater of formidable skill. He was admitted to the bar, but quickly turned to politics, shifting his radically utilitarian politics to Whig. There he became a key advocate of radical political reform, championing the rights of Catholics, Jews, and the middle class, none of whom had the right to vote in those times. Like his father, he was ardently anti-slavery. He never married, but was utterly devoted to his younger sisters, especially two of them. Macaulay, by Zareer Masani …


I used to be a Boy Scout. I was not a very good one, and lacked the diligence to pass up the ranks, though I liked camping and hiking. It seems that Scouts are talking about dropping their long time ban on gays. Interestingly enough, I was just reading Niall Ferguson's claim that Scout founder Baden-Powell, Kitchner and several other prominent Victorians were either repressed or deeply closeted homosexuals. The supposed evidence, long time very close male friendships and an interest in "girlie" things, seemed a bit weak to me. I also noted that there are about 4 million affiliated scouts in the Indian Subcontinent, and that they may, if they choose, substitute "Dharma" for "God" in the Scout oath.

What to Write About?

I'm finding that I have less and less to blog about. Physics has become rather boring, and in any case I'm not up on it. I shouldn't write about the British Empire - it's bound to piss off Arun. Politics has gotten pretty boring too. Smarter people are writing about climate change - not that I'm inclined to let that kind of consideration sway me. I'm reading an interminable novel that's been reviewed already by 3000 smart people and 30,000 other idiots. Friends and relatives are dropping like flies, but who wants hear about that? I could write about economics - thereby annoying Wolfgang - but its probably better to wait until a little more evidence accumulates on certain experiments now underway.

Infinite Jest

"It now lately sometimes seemed like a kind of black miracle to me," says Hal, "that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately - the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly." Report from page 183/1079 of Wallace's Infinite JestI'm increasingly unsure that I want to dedicate much more of my life to this gigantic and grotesque novel.

More of Malthus

I was trying to make two points in my earlier Malthus post. Judging by the responses, I didn't make them very convincingly. So here is another try: 1)Measures to decrease death rate may have the unintended consequence of later decreasing the welfare of the consequently more numerous survivors. I think that happened especially in Africa and Asia. 2)There are limits to how many people the planet can support. I would add my view that hitting the limit is likely to be catastrophic.

Empire as Entertainment

Niall Ferguson argues that the average stay-at-home, working class Brit did not get a whole lot of economic benefit out of the empire. Of course the plunderer's made their fortunes, and trade brought jobs, but emigration to Australia or Canada had a higher payoff and lower taxes. Supporting Army, Navy, and Empire was not free. One popular product they did get was vicarious adventure. There was an endless appetite for books and magazine stories of plucky/lucky Brit's triumphing over beast and foe in exotic locales. Wars were a kind of amplified adventure fiction, especially when the hapless foes couldn't inflict many casualties with spear and musket vs. machine gun. Britain averaged more than a war per year during Victoria's long reign. The favorite crackpot science of the day, eugenics, held that by eliminating the weak, such wars actually improved the human race - a theme later taken up by A. Hitler.

NRA Shout Out

If Saint Peter had had an AR-15 and plenty of loaded high capacity magazines, Christ might never have been crucified.

The Village School in India

Pre-British India had a system of village schools that impressed the English enough that they imported at least one feature back to their own schools in England - instruction of the younger pupils by the more advanced students. A good deal of English rhetoric was expended on what to do about these schools, but in fact, they were mostly left to their own devices. They were very economical, because teachers usually had no training beyond the village school themselves, and the money they made came in small fees and presents from the villagers they educated. There were no teacher's colleges and no books. These virtues also made them hard to reform and update. They did not admit students from the scheduled castes and many or most did not educate girls Such efforts and expenditures the British made were on the colleges or their own educational ventures. The best source I have found on them is D. D. Aggarawal's History and Development of Elementary Education in India.He reports t…


It's a sort of tribute to human stupidity that the fundamental economic lesson of Malthus remains so widely unappreciated. Of course, when I say human stupidity here, I really mean the triumph of instinct over intellect. Malthus, you might recall, pointed out that the geometrical power of human reproduction would always win out over any arithmetical increase in human productive capability. Consequently, in the absence of limitations on reproduction, the human population would increase until disease or starvation or other catastrophe limited it. Thus, the most productive soils, plus peace, plus improved hygiene, lead inevitably to population increase until some significant fraction lives in total immiseration. Add in equality, and everybody starves equally. Thus the brutal irony that the wealthiest peoples have often lived under conditions of war, periodic famine, or devastating disease. The Africa before modern medicine and suppression of tribal warfare and slavery was riche…

Culture and Religion

When I was an archaeology student 600 or so moons ago, it was a bit of a standing joke that if one unearthed an artifact of no obvious utilitarian purpose it was classified as "of religious significance." Of course that really only meant that nobody had figured out what it was good for, since generally the excavated didn't leave any clues as to their actual religious views, if any. A more subtle point is that it's not generally possible to clearly fence off any part of culture cleanly and call it religion, so that even if the artifact in question did turn out to be used for scrambling quail eggs or something, it might still be an item of religious and mythical consequence. Perhaps that point has something to do with the (to me largely incomprehensible) protestations that the Hindu have no religion. Our present culture goes a long way towards making that separation. The separation has fairly deep roots in Christianity ("render therefore onto Caesar..."), b…

English In India

Unfortunately, The Story of English in India (Krishaswami & Krishnaswami))does not appear to be available in ebook form.

Another Masani Review

Swapan Dasgupta, writing in India Today, also takes on Masani. Excerpt: In view of the demonology over Macaulay, Zareer Masani's lucid and uncluttered biography of Macaulay-the first since Arthur Bryant's study in 1932-must fall into the category of revisionist history on two counts. First, Masani does not proceed on the assumption that the imperial system was a blot on the history of mankind and that its functionaries were little better than precursors of Hitler's SS. He treats Macaulay as a noble example of a gifted, if somewhat precocious, English Whig who, like many of his contemporaries, saw British rule in India as a mission. Masani has tried to evaluate Macaulay in the context of the value system of the early and mid-19th century, and not through the prism of the early 21st century's political correctness. Secondly, Masani has resisted the macabre temptation of hunting for an economic rationale to every policy initiative of the British Empire. Instead, he has st…

The Economist Reviews Masani's Macaulay

A not particularly friendly (or unfriendly) review here.Excerpt: Whereas Britain remembers Macaulay as the entertaining but misguided father of the Whig interpretation of history, which charted his country’s progress towards parliamentary democracy, Indian nationalists curse his legacy. During his four years as a colonial politician, they argue, he fastened the yoke of the English language onto India. Even today “Macaulay’s children” is a pejorative term for those he Westernised. In this brisk, well-written biography Zareer Masani comes forcefully to his defence.

Physics and Stamp Collecting*

Why have the social sciences achieved more than physics? Perhaps you think I said that wrong, but it's all about subject matter. Physics is very good at analyzing certain simple and semi-isolated systems, but social systems aren't like that. If you believe as I do that physics is the only truly fundamental science, then you realize that chemistry, biology and the rest are really just applied physics. In principle, anthropology is just the study of the interactions of medium-sized agglomerations of quarks and leptons (MSAQL). In practice, physics is all but totally useless in saying anything about how such systems evolve. Whether you accept Phil Anderson's "more is different" as fundamental or not, you need to realize than in practice further ideas are needed to analyze the behavior of the MSAQL. Oddly enough, it turns out that one of the most useful such ideas, natural selection, has optimized the brains of certain such MSAQLs for just such tasks. It also se…

Book Bleg

Has anybody read "The Dream of the Red Chamber?" Is there a recommended Kindle translation?

Guns and Money

Whatever fit of morality seized England in the abolition of the slave trade seems to have abated by the latter nineteenth century, as they rushed pell-mell into Africa. The powers of Europe (England, France, Austria, Prussia and Russia) agreed to divy Africa. In part this was Bismark's strategy of playing England vs. France, but Prussia grabbed a piece too, just to confuse the map a bit. Once again, technology and money were the key players. As in India, private enterprise led the way, armed with credit and the new Maxim gun - an early machine gun. Cecil Rhodes found the Kimberly diamond mines a proper capitalist competition, with hundreds of small companies competing and driving down prices. Armed with Rothschild money, he and Lord Rothschild were able to buy up the lot and make serious money the old fashioned way, as the De Beers cartel. Rhodes used some of the profits to fund his overthrow of the Matebele and start his own country - Rhodesia. Proof of the unsatirizabilit…

Default, Dear Brutus...

Via Tyler Cowen: Via Felix Salmon, it appears Cyprus is going to default. However small a country it may be, does anyone at this point want to be on record setting any number of precedents, one way or the other?Next!

DFW: Infinite Jest

Report from page 125 = 12%. OK, it's not terrible, in fact it's pretty engaging. It is weird, however. The prominent critic Harold Bloom hated it, and many seem to consider it a great work - even the great work, of recent American literature. It's sprawling, like the greater Los Angeles metropolis. The author is endlessly self-indulgent, so sometimes it seems like one is reading the words of the world's most obnoxious adolescent show off. He seems determined to put every obscure word he knows into the text, and with 484,000 plus words, he has room for a lot. There are a few so far poorly integrated themes: a tennis boarding school, drug addiction, mental illness, and a science fictiony plot involving post something or other Canada/Quebec vs. the US. There are also enough characters to populate all of Russian literature, and the author seems either unable or unwilling to sketch them in anything other than the tritest strokes - all seem to be either freakish caric…


Thomas Babington Macaulay, the British historian, poet and politician also played a key part in the British rule of India. He was, according to a new biography, a racist with no use for Hindu culture, but he was also a far seeing liberal who had a vision of the future of India that was remarkably prescient. Zareer Masani, a historian who is himself the son of prominent Indian political figures, is the author of Macaulay: Pioneer of India's Modernization. Macaulay is controversial in India, but it turns out that he has a big fan club, mostly among the Dalits (scheduled castes = former untouchables). The reason for the fans, says Masani, is that he introduced teaching English, and they consider that to have been crucial in their social and political advancement.

I Am An Idiot: Chapter One Zillion Thirty-Seven

Oh Dear! I have let myself get sucked into a Literary Novel. The literary novel was the invention, naturally, of literature professors. The literature professors, by the way, are mostly people who found out that they couldn't write an at age when it was to late to learn any economically or socially useful skills. It was jealousy that prompted the invention. Literature students are usually people who like to read stories, and reading stories is fundamentally pleasing, so the Lit profs found their students mostly wearing happy faces, except of course for those who had already figured out that they couldn't write and needed to prepare for a real job somewhere. When they looked around campus, though, they saw countless grim-faced students, worn down from sleepless nights and debilitating toil. "Who are those hapless losers, they asked." Physics students. Math students. Engineering majors, came the answers. "And why are they so miserable?" "Problem s…

Post Colonial Studies

Having devoted my last three novel reads to Africa (Conrad, Achebe, and Naipaul), I have rather recklessly embarked on David Foster Wallace's semi-infinite novel Infinite Jest. In my youth and middle age, I loved long novels - War and Peace, The Lord of the Rings, The Alexandria Quartet, Moby Dick, Harry Potter and even other long books generally. Now that I'm old, and sadder if not wiser courtesy of Ulysses, Gravity's Rainbow, and Atlas Shrugged I find them intimidating, like the sort of long walks in the mountains that I can no longer manage. Well Wallace is another kilo-pages plus, so we shall see.

50 Words to Confuse Your Linguist

Pioneering anthropologist Franz Boaz set off a century long debate when he reported that Eskimos had 50 words for snow. The newest and seemingly most careful research seems to show that he was indeed right. Also, the Sami people of Scandinavia and Russia pay a lot of attention to Reindeer. The Sami also have as many as 1,000 words for reindeer. These refer to such things as the reindeer’s fitness (“leami” means a short, fat female reindeer), personality (“njirru” is an unmanageable female) and the shape of its antlers (“snarri” is a reindeer whose antlers are short and branched). There is even a Sami word to describe a bull with a single, very large testicle: “busat.”Do you suppose reindeer with especially red noses are called "Rudolfs?"


One of the stranger claims I read is that some group or other of people doesn't have morality. Of course that is exactly the claim that colonizers used as a justification for imposing some morals - namely their own - and if true, it would be a pretty good argument. I think it's mostly nonsense, though. Available evidence seems to suggest that despite many differences in detail, certain common principles are widely honored.

More Ferguson

Discuss: It might seem self-evident that they [Indians] would have been better off under Indian rulers. That was certainly true from the point of view of the ruling elites the British had overthrown and whose share of national income, something like 5 per cent, they then appropriated for their own consumption. But for the majority of Indians it was far less clear that their lot would improve under independence. Under British rule, the village economy’s share of total after-tax income actually rose from 45 per cent to 54 per cent. Since that sector represented around three-quarters of the entire population, there can therefore be little doubt that British rule reduced inequality in India. And even if the British did not greatly increase Indian incomes, things might conceivably have been worse under a restored Mughal regime had the Mutiny succeeded. China did not prosper under Chinese rulers. The reality, then, was that Indian nationalism was fuelled not by the impoverishment of the ma…

The White Mutiny

Correctly or not, Niall Ferguson sees the origins of the Indian independence movement in an event called The White Mutiny. After the rebellion of 1857 and the dissolution of the East India Company, India was ruled by a tiny cadre of civil servants, about 900 to rule a country of 250 million. This highly competitive civil service was entered by passing very demanding exams in history, politics, morality, Indian languages and much else. As Queen Victoria had promised, this civil service was open in theory to Indians as well as Britons. Indians created their own schools to study for the exams and eventually Indians were in fact admitted. The rules, however, had an important racist clause. Although both were members of the covenanted civil service, the Indians were not entitled to conduct trials of white defendants in criminal cases. In the eyes of the new Viceroy, this was an indefensible anomaly; so he requested a bill to do away with it. Ferguson, Niall (2008-03-17). Empire: The …

Modern Times

The British empire was certain of its moral, technological, and economic superiority to the culture of the peoples it conquered. History has been pretty unequivocal on the latter two, even while the first notion has become rather beaten up by both history and science. When one culture displaces another, it creates profound stresses in society. Every kind of personal and economic relationship is disrupted. It's conventional these days to blame that destructive impact on colonialism, but I think that's way too simple. In the war of cultures, the roles of Shiva and Kali are played by something I will call modern times. Science and technology didn't originate in the West, of course, but at some point they achieved a critical mass there. The triumph of Newtonian physics, I think, provoked turning the tools of science on everything - biology, geology, war, culture and economics. Economic and cultural inventions powered a transformation of life and ways of making a living…


I like to put in a good word for hypocrisy. It's always fashionable to deplore it, and it can be annoying, especially on Fox News, but let's look at the other side of the coin. Niall Ferguson, in his book Empire, juxtaposes Queen Victoria worrying about extending her reign to yet more of the world as the least Britain could do for the poor wretches not yet incorporated into the empire even while Britain was busy using it's imperial muscle to become the great drug dealer of the world. Empty words, no doubt, but even empty words have their weight. If you invest a lot of intellectual effort in persuading yourself of your righteousness, it can be harder to ignore the ways your words fail to match your actions. After the Indian rebellion of 1857, the British East India Company was disbanded, and the Brits made two promises to the Indians: no more meddling in Indian religion, and no discrimination against the "natives." Well, they sort of kept the first. Gandhi, a…


Manti Te'o is a ferocious Notre Dame linebacker, was a Heisman trophy candidate, and is probably still a top NFL prospect. The story of his imaginary girlfriend, however, violates all my instincts about the natural order of the world. Whether he was a perpetrator or merely a victim of the hoax, it just doesn't seem right. Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey: Notre Dame's Manti Te'o, the stories said, played this season under a terrible burden. A Mormon linebacker who led his Catholic school's football program back to glory, Te'o was whipsawed between personal tragedies along the way. In the span of six hours in September, as Sports Illustrated told it, Te'o learned first of the death of his grandmother, Annette Santiago, and then of the death of his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua. Kekua, 22 years old, had been in a serious car accident in California, and then had been diagnosed with leukemia. SI's Pete Thamel described how Te'o would phone her in her hospit…


(Based on Niall Ferguson's Empire) The British East India Company had a strict policy against encouraging Christian prosetlyization. They presciently feared that such efforts would interfere with their aim to extract the maximum rent from the Indian economy. After the evangelical success in demolishing the Atlantic Slave trade, however, those evangelicals could not be persuaded to forbear any longer, and an intense parliamentary campaign culminated in orders to let in and support the missionaries. Their forthright goals were to save the Indians from their benighted religion and bring them the blessing of Christianity and Capitalism. Their passion was particularly aroused by three Indian practices they found extremely offensive: female infanticide, thagi (quasi-religious associations of murderers and thieves), and suttee (or burning widows alive on their husband's funeral pyres). If they had confined their attentions to these, Indian resentment might have been manageable - …

Alternate History India: I

Few pastimes are much more idle than inventing alternative histories, but here is one anyway. At the moment, slightly less than 80% of the population of India is Hindu, and about 14% Muslims, with the rest mainly Christian, Buddhist and Sikh. The population balance has been very slowly shifting (0.75% per decade) from Hindu to Muslim. If partition had not happened, and Greater India (India + Pakistan + Bangladesh) one nation, the ratio would be roughly 60% Hindu to 35% Muslim. If other nations with similar balances of mutually suspicious religions are a guide, that would be a pretty unstable mix. Throw in India's cultural and linguistic divisions, and keeping the nation from exploding would have been tough.

More Religion and Dr. Balagangadhara

So far as I can recall, from I my studies of anthropology a half century or so ago, back when Dr. B was still (figuratively, anyway) in short pants, the definitions of religion I saw didn't line up with his. The salient points, if I recall, were that religion was a social activity, involved supernatural beings or other sacred objects of veneration (ancestors, mountains, etc), and social rituals. Usually there was some point in placating the sacred by ritual or deed. By this definition, religion is very widespread, existing in some form in almost every society and Hinduism is clearly religious. I'm pretty sure this kind of idea preceded his work by many decades. That's the first point about his writings that I find hard to accept. The second objection is not scientific or academic, but political. I think his point of view promotes an anti-modern nativism of the sort that frequently leads to jingoistic nationalism.

The Slave Trade

The British didn't invent the African slave trade, and neither did Europeans, but the British became enthusiastic slave traders and exploiters of slave labor. The conditions in which such slaves were transported and worked were incredibly awful. Few slaves survived more than a few years on the Carribean sugar plantations, for example. But the British were also world leaders in abolishing slavery. The humanitarian impulse that led first to British abolition had precursors but took root in the evangelical Christian movement of late 18th century Britain. Once the Atlantic slave trade had been abolished, Britain's next great expansionary impulse was driven increasingly by the evangelical impulse. These explorers were if anything, even more intrepid than their pirate predecessors. Their altruistic intentions were not entirely matched by their effects. Plunking down freed slaves in new African communities far from tribe, clan and the ecology of their birthplaces was usually di…

Inspector Javert

Corrupt public officials can do a good deal of damage, but the over zealously self-righteous can be even more dangerous, armed as they are with moral certainty. U.S. District Attorney Carmen Ortiz and her deputy Stephen Heymann played the role of Inspector Javert in the case of Aaron Swartz, the brilliant computer scientist who was driven to suicide by their vicious prosecution of what was in effect a harmless prank. Emily Bazelon: Swartz was accused of going into an unlocked computer-wiring closet at MIT in September 2010, changing an IP address on a university computer, and using it to download the papers from JSTOR, which normally charges per article or per subscription. Why did Swartz monkey around this way with JSTOR? I’m not sure he ever explained this particular act, but it’s not wholly surprising given his record of passionate advocacy for freeing information online. He’s the guy who also figured out a way to download 20 percent of the government’s federal court database, PAC…

Appointment With Dr. Balagangadhara

Well, now that Banerjee has also sent me to Dr. B., I dipped again into The Heathen and His Blindness. It's not easy reading for me - filled with scholarly allusions I don't recognize and epistemological circumlocutions and qualifications I find hard to parse. Possibly a symptom of my inability to understand another culture - but I doubt it. Anyway, I skipped ahead to his summary (Chapter 12). Here is one paragraph of interest: In a way, one could also describe the entire argument of the book in the following way. A culture, the West, believes that all cultures are constituted (partially) by religion; it further believes that individuals and cultures require worldviews to orient and navigate themselves in the world. These beliefs are those of a culture and I show that they partially constitute the West. To show this, I specify how cultures differ from each other. Relating learning processes to cultural differences help us here.My first quibble is that I don't think …


Wolfgang has sent me to the work of Roger Farmer, a self-described Keynesian economist who believes in what he calls qualitative easing - which consists of governments buying risky assets, in effect exchanging them for government bonds. I read one of his papers (I don't know of an ungated version). From the abstract: This paper is about the effectiveness of qualitative easing; a government policy that is designed to mitigate risk through central bank purchases of privately held risky assets and their replacement by government debt, with a return that is guaranteed by the taxpayer. Policies of this kind have recently been carried out by national central banks, backed by implicit guarantees from national treasuries. I construct a general equilibrium model where agents have rational expectations and there is a complete set of financial securities, but where agents are unable to participate in financial markets that open before they are born. I show that a change in the asset compos…

A Long Time Ago...

Cue John Williams for music ... You may have heard that the Obama White House has agreed to answer petitions getting 25,000 or more signatures. Many are innocuous requests like that of Texas and some other states to secede, but others are potentially more sinister. Josh Marshall at TPM likes the response to the petition to build a Death Star:The White House has officially responded to the ‘We the People’ petition to commit the US to building a Death Star. Best line: “Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?” Next best: “The Administration does not support blowing up planets,” which may represent a slight shift from the position of the previous administration.On the other hand, it seems that singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran has actually built, or at least bought, a Death Star. If you haven't listened to his Class A-Team, you really should.

Novel Readings

My latest read is V.S. Naipaul's A Bend in The River. It can be considered another lens on Africa, in this case, immediately post-colonial Africa. Naipaul is a Trinidad born writer of Indian ancestry, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and often considered the finest writer in English currently around. India has been trading with Africa for many centuries, and the narrator is a member of an Indian community living on the East coast of Africa. Just after the end of the European colonial empires he goes to seek his fortune deep in the interior of Africa, buying a trading store at a bend in the big river, in a little town just starting to recover from post-colonial violence - a setting nearly identical in space if later in time than that of my last two novel reads - Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. Not quite sure where the story is going yet, but I can say that the author fully lives up to his reputation. He is a terrific stylist wit…

Make My Day

Jacob Weisberg thinks there is a new, more confrontational and combative Obama in the WH.Barack Obama’s most cherished illusion during his first term was the possibility of cooperation with Republicans. Time and again, the president came to Congress bearing preemptive concessions—on his original economic stimulus package, his health care plan, and the 2011 debt-ceiling fight—only to have the door slammed in his face by an obstructionist GOP that viewed politics as a zero-sum game... In recent weeks, however, we’ve seen the tentative emergence of a quite different second-term Obama: one shorn of his fantasies about compromise, contemptuous of his opponents, and almost eager to stand on principle. Obama II may be no more likely to get more legislation passed than Obama I. Politically, however, he is a bolder and more appealing figure: less the hostage, more the reluctant gunslinger of the classic Western. Here's hoping.

Tea Party

I'm becoming a fan of historian Niall Ferguson, who unfortunately appears to have formerly occupied the same body now inhabited by Niall Ferguson, Republican party hack. He has a nice eye for the telling detail. He claims out that the famous Boston Tea Party was actually a reaction to a decrease in taxes on Tea, and that the perpetrators were smugglers who were thereby put out of business.

More MOOC: Economics

I am experimenting with the Coursera/Caltech course Principles of Economics for Scientists, taught by Antonio Rangel. He promises to show that economics is a science with testable models and experiments, while promising to cover the essentials of what is usually a one year course in one term by using fewer words and more calculus. Econ for geeks.

Study of History

The study of history is discouraging in a number of respects. For one thing, it's pretty clear that genocide is the major player in practically every history of note. That's a corollary, by the way, of the first principle of economics, the Law of Malthus. As soon as humans managed to become a major predator, and perhaps before, human population expanded until it was controlled by starvation, war, and disease. Once we "advanced" to agriculture, our productivity crowded us every more densely. If such a society is to be stable, it needs mechanisms for controlling population well enough to prevent starvation. Typically civilizations develop a range of methods, including restrictions on marriage, like dowry and bride price. War is another popular alternative, and when successful, is often followed by genocidal elimination of the conquered. Another technique is establishment of a poor class - the designated victims, if we may so designate them. Their job is to die o…

Economic Science and Economic Religion

I notice that a lot of my correspondents are reluctant to credit economics with being a science. Actually, most of them dismiss the idea out of hand. This doesn't keep them from having economic opinions however. In fact some of the strongest opinions come from those most dismissive of economics as a science. It seems that Paul Krugman has noticed a similar phenomenon.For many people on the right, value is something handed down from on high It should be measured in terms of eternal standards, mainly gold; I have, for example, often seen people claiming that stocks are actually down, not up, over the past couple of generations because the Dow hasn’t kept up with the gold price, never mind what it buys in terms of the goods and services people actually consume. And given that the laws of value are basically divine, not human, any human meddling in the process is not just foolish but immoral. Printing money that isn’t tied to gold is a kind of theft, not to mention blasphemy. For…
I have now ventured a bit into the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) world on Duolingo, Udacity, Coursera, and Code Academy and have a few opinions. Spanish of Duolingo was great. CS 101 on Udacity, which I'm taking mostly to learn Python, is also really excellent. It's very early, but I'm a bit less impressed with Caltech's Galaxies and Cosmology on Coursera. Interactivity is the key to success, I think. Watching a lecturer is about as uninspiring on video as in a classroom. I call it close because the modest suspense of waiting for the live action prof to trip over his eraser is balanced by one's ability to stop the video to get another beer. Hemingway, or somebody, said that if you bring a gun onstage in the first act, you need to shoot somebody with it in the second. I feel the same way about equations in physics classes. You can do that with language - translate this - or computer stuff - code that - and you need an interface to do the same with equati…

British Empire

A famous book about the founders of Apple and Microsoft was called Accidental Empires. The same description applies to the most valuable element of the British empire, India. According to Niall Ferguson, for 150 years, the British were in India merely to trade, but they fortified their trading posts, which have grown into some of the most important Indian cities: Mumbai, Madras, and Calcutta. During that time they existed by the grace of the Mughal emperor, and that of some of his deputies. Two key elements changed that. One was the British triumph in a long struggle with France. The other was the ongoing disintegration of the Mughal empire, a Muslim dynasty that had conquered much of India some centuries before. The struggle with France had occasioned a build up of English force in India, and victory had chased out their European rival. Short-sighted Indian princes, struggling with each other for power were eager to accept help from the warlike foreigners. And thus they invit…

Debt Ceiling

Obama needs to go on TV and everywhere and just say: "The Republicans are attempting to hold the nation hostage on the debt ceiling. What they are asking for is that Social Security and Medicare be cut, but they are afraid to tell us what cuts they want because they know they cannot pass them. I have no intention of cutting benefits to seniors and certainly won't propose any. If they have cost saving suggestions, let them present them to the public. He needs to say this frequently, in the simplest possible words, dispensing with his usual weasel wording.


A big chunk of Stanley Wolpert's India is devoted to Hindu theology. It's suitably baffling in its complexity. Regular readers may recall that I like to try to find the evolutionary rationale for religions. In some cases, it seems relatively easy, but India is surely a special case. Of course I don't understand much, but in many ways the Hindu gods seem to me to bear a resemblance to the kinds of gods found in the early polytheistic religions of Europe and the Middle East. They are embedded, however, in a higher level religious and cultural philosophy that seems to underlie and unify the whole culture. I probably shouldn't spend to much effort on this complex task, but I suspect my odds of understanding India without it are poor.

Ideal Weather

I have always liked watching snow. Of course it's a bit of a rarity here in Southern New Mexico. At 40 miles north of Mexico, we are far enough South to be to the right of most storm tracks. It's also a bit warm for snow most of the year, though at 3900 feet, not entirely too warm. Well, we got a couple of days of snow this week, and so far its worked out pretty well. Down here in Las Cruces, the ground is warm enough so that the roads are staying wet rather than icy, while the snow piles up on the lawn. It melts on my driveway fast enough that it would hardly be worth shoveling off, even if I still owned a snow shovel. Since I work at a remote location that involves crossing a 5700 foot plus mountain pass, a quiet little snowstorm down here often turns into a blizzard up there, and icy drifts can accumulate faster than snowplows can clear them. So it was this morning, and hence work was first delayed and then cancelled - sort of a snow bonus, though of course all the wo…

Birth of a Modern State

One thing reading Stanley Wolpert's India has done for me is convince me just how traumatic and painful cultural transformation is, especially when it's intrinsic to the creation of a state. The most central figure in the creation of the modern Indian state is Gandhi, but he's a strange figure, in many ways highly westernized and influenced by Christ and Tolstoy, who transformed himself into a hybrid of Hindu mystic and sometimes brilliant politician. He made several critical decisions which played a key role in doing exactly what he wanted to avoid: partition of India. His decision to withdraw from politics and spin cotton for ten years alienated him from Jinnah and others who might have avoided that. Choosing against Britain in World War II made him implacable enemies in Britain. In the end, though, he chose to accept a constitution that placated Jinnah and the British: The 1946 Cabinet Mission's three-tiered federal scheme was India's last hope for independen…

Dope Dealers, 17th Century Style

Niall Ferguson finds it notable that after making his name, knighthood and fortune from piracy, Henry Morgan invested his profits in a Jamaican Sugar plantation. The British Empire's progress beyond piracy continued with the importation of what became the hot commodities in Europe's first mass consumer market. Caffeine, sugar and nicotine were the new drugs of choice - uppers, says Ferguson, versus the traditional European downer of alcohol. After drugs, the next consumer market was for textiles, namely the highly refined textiles of India. The economics of this early import trade were relatively simple. Seventeenth-century English merchants had little they could offer Indians that the Indians did not already make themselves. They therefore paid for their purchases in cash, using bullion earned from trade elsewhere rather than exchanging English goods for Indian. Today we call the spread of this process globalization, by which we mean the integration of the world as a single …

Not Churchill but MaCaulay

Rupa Subramanya points the finger at Thomas MaCaulay for the deficiencies of India's rape law system. Her article, I think, is better than her argument. Essentially the point is that India's rape laws are based on the English laws of MaCaulay's time. England has changed, and India needs to take responsibility for its own laws - wherever they originated. The article makes a thoughtful argument for the changes she thinks are needed, which mostly are not incorporated in current reform efforts. Of course if blaming the problems on the English works to get better laws, then go for it.

Foundation of Empire

Every empire is built on theft. Perhaps we have become enough better to disdain such now. The big global empires of the western Europeans began with Spain's looting of Mexican and Peruvian gold and silver. The enormous fortunes so acquired excited intense envy in the rest of Europe, including England. It took a century or so before the English really got the hang of making long ocean voyages, but they were determined to find some gold of their own to steal. When they found they lacked the Midas touch, they turned to piracy instead. The successful pirates, like Morgan and Drake, gained knighthoods, while less accomplished ones like Walter Ralegh found scaffold and noose. Such is the tale told by Niall Ferguson in Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power. Despite such scruffy beginnings, Ferguson is something of an apologist for empire at heart. In particular, he is critical of the viewpoint that the effects of empire are purely…


"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."After extensive research - I looked at maybe 3 online dictionaries - I concluded that dictionaries define science either as an organized body of knowledge or the process of assembling the same. I'm going to go with the process version, and since I'm doing the choosing here, and I'm calling economics a science. It's actually the senior member of the social sciences. This is not a peculiar choice. The Nobel Memorial prizes are given in Economic Science, not Economic Art or Economic religion. The NSF has a division of economic sciences. Universities have departments of economic science. The thing that make an activity a science, I think - I choose - is the systematic assembly and analysis of data. I would add two crucial ingredients for doing good science: honesty and a critical, especially self-critical, attitude. …

Technology and Jobs

I've been reading Stanley Wolpert's India and one disaster Britain inflicted on India was one of those unintentional disaster intrinsic to modernity: midland factories and mills in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, triggered almost as many changes in Indian society and economic life as it did in (treat Britain itself. Manchester manufacturers' faith in laissez-faire and their lobby's power in Parliament put an end to the Company's monopoly privileges after 1813, opening India to rapacious armies of free merchants, seeking new and bigger markets for their prolifically produced goods. Cotton cloth manufactured in Manchester mills was sold up a thousand rivers throughout Bengal for half or one-quarter the price of hand-woven "Dacca," launching a revolution of sorts in British India's economy by putting millions of Indian spinners, weavers, and other handicraftsmen out of work in a matter of decades. Stanley Wolpert. India: Third Edition, Wit…

India's Invaders

Ever since civilization began, the civilizations have been overrun by occasional waves of barbarian hordes. Some of our earliest records describe such invasions, and we have fairly detailed information about some of them - the feats of Joshua, the successive waves that flowed over Spain and Britain, the Muslim expansion, and others. India seems more subject to invasions than most, though, despite being pretty well fortified by natural barriers, and despite having developed a high technological civilization at a very early stage. At one level, this is a direct consequence of it's vast diversity - linguistic, cultural, and political. Conquerors, like Alexander, picked off one small Indian state at a time - India was unable to muster any unified response. Later conquerors, internal and external, relied on the same strategy. Perhaps the Aryans did as well. Somehow, India failed to develop a collective immune response to foreign invasion. Perhaps you have guessed that I'm wor…